Birthdays are about celebrations. Partying hard is one thing. The other thing is about celebrating life. Hitting thirty is like transcending into an entirely different phase of life. And life, as they say, begins at thirty. This becomes reason enough to have a memorable celebration! Nothing beats the joy of spending the special day with family and friends, but sometimes a different plan is all we need. So my birthday took us to Italy; we traveled, explored, celebrated, and made memories.
Our plan was to visit Milan. But since there is always so much to see in Italy, we couldn’t resist adding more locations ( read exotic ) to our trip. We based our stay in Milan, and planned day visits, first to Lake Como, and then to Venice. August is the time when European tourism is at its peak, so is the weather. Streets are busier, and accommodations are jam packed; at city centers, rooms are mostly sold out. This was not what happened in Milan. We reached in the evening and checked into our hotel, which was located in one of the lanes very close to the city center. We would have to just walk down the road to visit the iconic Milan Cathedral (Duomo di Milano). Milan looked dull and deserted. We were too hungry and there was no dinner service in our hotel. The manager was friendly and suggested us an area nearby where we could find some. There was not a single soul on the street and it wasn’t very late in the night. We kept walking for a while, yearning to catch a glimpse of civilization, and only to realize that we were back at the same point where we had begun! So we went again. This time, at the far end, we saw some light. There was an old Roman structure, almost dilapidated, where, from what looked liked it, there were groups of students hanging out for the night. We felt relieved. We had dinner in one of the pizzerias around and headed back to our hotel, this time without losing our way. We learned from our hotel manager that August is the time when locals take their annual summer break, and hence such desolation in the streets is normal.
The sight of a bright summer sun from the window of our hotel room was a good start to the new day. Milan looked busy and happening. After a sumptuous breakfast at the hotel, we were headed to Lake Como. Just for some geographical information, both Milan and Lake Como fall in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. Lake Como, by train, is less than an hour’s ride from Milan Central Station. We arrived at the quaint little station of the town of Como, which is located at the southern tip of Lake Como; the lake, as is obvious, gets its name from this town. A short walk from the station leads to the lakeside. On the map, the lake looks like an overturned version of the letter ‘Y’, and we were at one of the tips. There is a very efficient ferry service available for town hopping around Lake Como. Tremezzo, Varenna, Lecco and Menaggio are some of the towns that the ferry ride takes to. We chose to visit Bellagio, which is claimed to be the prettiest of all. And pretty, it indeed is. Now August, I think, is a crazy month in Europe. Unlike the rest of the times, you are surrounded by hordes of people on locations like these, and the queues in the ticket counters are rather long. However, they are hassle-free. Nobody pushes, and everybody waits their turn. We bought our tickets and waited for our ferry to arrive. While we waited, there were men who kept pressing us on buying selfie-sticks from them, since they urged that we shared the same subcontinent, in spite of seeing one hanging from my bag. But this is not unusual in Italy. There are plenty of street hawkers. The ferry arrived, disembarking an equally large number of tourists, as was the number waiting in the queue to board. And there we were, heading to Bellagio. A little deep into the lake, and what you see, takes your breath away! Time stops. You see blue waters, and blue skies, and mountains in between them. High-end cameras or bombastic adjectives are not even close to capturing the tranquil serenity that the naked eye sees. It is a sight that stays with you, forever. You feel so much calm within, and you feel blessed, for the very reason of being able to see it.
Bellagio is the rich man’s retreat. It is a place for the wealthy to wine and dine in its exotic restaurants, spend sleepy afternoons by the lake, and immerse in the comforts of its hotels. A host of cafes and restaurants run along the arcade that faces the lake. A beer stop is recommended. It is a place for the impulsive shopper as well. There are shops that sell alluring accessories for women, and then there are the archetypal souvenir shops. Lanes in European towns are to die for; they are a favorite of mine. In Bellagio, enchanting pretty lanes, in cobblestone, lead up to the little main town square.You can spend hours in these picturesque old-fashioned lanes, also discovering equally enticing eateries as you walk along. There is a medieval church in the tiny town square. Blue waters of the lake appear at the far horizon, with the brightly painted lanes playing foreground. We did a pizza lunch, an obvious quintessential in Italy, and spent some quiet time by the waters, while waiting for our ferry to return to Como. This captivating little town leaves you in a trance, and the very existence of such calm and peaceful corners of the earth seems ethereal. After arriving in Como, we did some souvenir shopping, walked around the town, passing by a beautiful church, shopped, and enjoyed some soulful music by a local busker.
We traveled back to Milan, completely enchanted and enthralled. Once in Milan, we went around the main square, photo-stopping at the Cathedral, and explored the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, an Art Noveau style arcaded high-fashion shopping street, also one of the oldest shopping malls in the world. Milan being the fashion capital of the world, window-shopping the likes of the elegant and extravagant shopper is mandatory here!
The next morning began much earlier than usual. We had to catch a train to Venice. I was revisiting Venice after five years, loaded with an influx of memories. The journey from Milan takes around three hours. Italy is so beautiful that it leaves you breathless, every time. Even the train journeys are. We crossed sleepy little villages, that are a different world of their own, and we crossed Romeo and Juliet’s Verona too. The Shakespearean mood sets in even before reaching Venice! The blue Adriatic waters of the Venetian lagoon are such a pleasing vista to the eye. On reaching St. Lucia, the railway station in Venice, the first thing we did was buying ferry tickets. There are day passes available too, for infinite island hopping. Since we were on a day trip, we planned to visit the main public square of Venice, Piazza San Marco. As the ferry anchors, a string of souvenir shops runs along the road that leads to the two large columns standing tall at the entrance of the square. Venetians believe that walking in between these can bring bad luck since this area was used for executions in the medieval times. The square is dominated by the basilica of St. Mark, and the bell tower in front of it. The church, with its intricate carvings, is a stunning piece of Italo-Byzantine architecture. Arcades run along on either side of the square, adorned with shops and restaurants. It is the shopper’s haven. The vibrant Venetian mask is something worth bringing home. We wandered about the labyrinth-like narrow lanes discovering rich vivid colors of Venetian architecture and indulged in some shopping too. Traditional gondolas wait for riders on the sleek canals meandering around the place. The summer heat was getting to us by now. Post lunch, we walked along the arcades, trying our best to escape the scorching sun. The long queue at the entrance of St. Mark’s kept getting longer, and since we had a train back to Milan in the evening, we headed back to the ferry stand. These ferry rides on the lagoon are like journies back in time to the medieval ages. And you have to see it to believe it. The facade of every building has to story of its own to say. Shakespeare must have surely found something extraordinarily fascinating about Venice, to have set two of his important plays in this city. I longed to stay back and explore the other islands as well, but I wish we had more time in hand to have planned it that way.
On the day of my birthday, we did Milan, and mostly on foot. We walked up to the church of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, home to Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Prior reservation and proper dressing are mandatory parameters to get an entry here. Across the road is a building, in the courtyard of which grows the vineyard of Da Vinci. We visited the Sforza Castle, one of the largest forts in Europe. Inside the fort, there are museums to visit. We walked out and a little ahead of the road I found the statue of Garibaldi. While this is of little significance to anyone else, the reason of my fascination was the fact that we had an entire chapter on him, while in school. We were now on our way to the Duomo or the Milan Cathedral, a highly ornamented Gothic church, and also the largest in Italy. The heat never stopped bothering us. We walked up to the highly crowded vicinity of the cathedral. The queue was too long and we were already quite exhausted by then. This is also the consequence of traveling in the summer seasons. I would recommend climbing up to the terrace of the church to get a view of the city. Since the birthday lunch was due, we wanted to relax and revel in the flavors of some good Italian food, and we found a place right opposite to the Duomo. After lunch, we strolled around the vicinity, watched street performances, and whiled away some time on the benches of a small park where the monument of Da Vinci stands. The special trip ended with a mandatory cup of cappuccino in its country of origin.
Postscript: As much as Como has been a holiday destination for the elite, the sight of the area right in front of the railway station gives you a reality check of, what looked like, the current state of refugee crisis that the world has been facing. There were people, from Africa, living in this area, in very temporary tent-like shelters, trying to have a normal life: kids playing together, women washing clothes, teenagers gathering in groups for some conversation, et al. While we, in India are used to witnessing the harsh realities of poverty and destitution in our streets, seeing something close to that in the territories of rich and prosperous Europe can get a little disturbing. It is a personal opinion, though.